2017 set to be Waikato’s year

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It’s going to be a big year for Waikato business with a rising spirit of optimism and confidence shaping up to be a game-changer for regional development planning, say commerce leaders.

Waikato Chamber of Commerce chief executive William Durning expects 2017 to see a real push, led by business, for collaboration and synchronicity of various groups involved in economic development, investment and infrastructure planning for the greater region.

Waikato Chamber of Commerce chief executive William Durning.

Prominent company director Margaret Devlin, who last month stepped down as chairperson of the Waikato Institute of Directors as it marked its 25th year, says business people are ready to “make things happen” this year.

“There’s a lot of activity in the region, many opportunities that businesses are going to look to seize on. Business is feeling more confident around what could be done in this region,” she says.

“There’s a real sense of optimism. There’s going to be a lot happening in 2017. What that specifically might mean, who knows, but people are ready to kick in and make things happen.”

Devlin says much of the momentum has been fuelled by Waikato’s “growth agenda”, encompassed by major regional planning initiatives such as the Waikato Plan, Waikato Means Business and Future Proof Strategy.

While these are collaborative efforts between commerce, communities and local and central government, Devlin and Durning say the feedback they are getting is that people want more collaboration.

Durning says communication is likely to be a key theme this year.

“One of the subsets of this is the often-discussed issue of an economic development agency. I think there’s a case to be had for a conversation how we can work collaboratively together to articulate the economic opportunities that exist for us.”

While local and central government were keen to support pro-business, business-led initiatives, it was up to business to identify issues and actions and find “an appropriate mechanism” to do this.

“That is what I get the sense is being worked on, and as an organisation we are very keen to support and encourage. What that looks like I don’t know, I don’t think there is a clear idea (yet) and there’s nothing wrong with that.”

Former Waikato Institute of
Directors’ chairman Margaret Devlin.

But he expected to see developments this year.

“At the forefront of our minds is that the opportunity exists for us (Waikato) to be good. But that’s not actually good enough. For us to be exceptional and to deliver something exceptional will require us to think innovatively and in a different way.”

Devlin says the strong message from businesses in her three years as independent chairperson of the joint committee for the Waikato Plan – the first time all councils and agencies have worked together to guide regional investment for the next 30 years – is that they want collaboration.

“There’s strong support for thinking up, not down in detail, and how to optimise potential for this region.  For me, this year will be about Waikato business asking what we can do together. Let’s embrace these collaborative projects and get moving.”

The draft Waikato Plan goes to public consultation early this year. It outlines four priorities: planning for population change; getting investment right; partnering with iwi; addressing issues around freshwater quality and allocation.

Devlin said it was not well understood that both the Waikato Plan and Waikato Means Business, an economic development strategy, are “living, breathing” documents that will be updated regularly. The Waikato Plan would keep evolving and was accountable for its delivery.

“Part of the consultation process will be looking at what should the delivery mechanism look like. Is it an agency, a council-controlled agency, a separate group of people? All those options will be canvassed.”

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Andrea Fox is a business journalist, a former Waikato Times business editor, Fairfax Business Bureau journalist and author. Andrea.fox@xtra.co.nz

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